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Morning Qualifying – Happy Birthday, Alberto!

Jennings R. Scroggs, Jr. July 13, 2011 Morning Qualifying 3 Comments

From 1940, a young Alberto Ascari at the wheel of his Auto Avio Costruzione 815.

At a Christmas Eve dinner party in 1939, a young Alberto Ascari approached the owner of a nearby garage and airplane parts manufacturer and asked him to build 2 sports cars, so that he and his friend, the Marquis Lotario Rangoni Macchiavelli di Modena, could race in that spring’s Mille Miglia.  The proprietor had befriended Alberto’s father, former racing champion Antonio Ascari, when they worked together at Alfa Romeo.  Happy to help the young Ascari launch his auto racing career, he agreed to the request.  That garage owner’s name was Enzo Ferrari, and thus began a fruitful partnership between the younger Ascari and the gentleman whose name became synonymous with speed, power and beauty.

Ascari and Villoresi have a chat prior to the 1948 British Grand Prix.

After the war, Ascari initially raced with Maserati under the tutelage of Luigi Villoresi.  Alberto proved a quick study, beating his mentor to win the 1947 San Remo Grand Prix.  Over the next 18 months,  Ascari repeatedly demonstrated his burgeoning talent with podium finishes at Rheims and Silverstone in 1948 and a victory at the 1949 Buenos Aires Grand Prix.  Ferrari enlisted Ascari and Villoresi to the newly reconstituted Scuderia Ferrari, and Alberto confirmed the wisdom of Enzo’s decision by reeling off wins at the Swiss, Italian and Peron Grands Prix.  After spending the 1950 season tearing up Formula 2 while Ferrari’s F1 car was under development, Ascari and Ferrari charged into the 1951 Formula One season determined to break Alfa Romeo’s grip on the series.  While Alberto drove magnificently, taking victories at the Nurburgring and Monza, Fangio and Alfa Romeo had just enough to hold Ferrari and Ascari at bay and win the Formula 1 championship.

Alberto Ascari at the 1952 British Grand Prix at Silverstone

With a change in Formula 1 rules to F2 technical specifications, and the resulting withdrawal of Alfa Romeo, Alberto sat in the catbird’s seat for the 1952 season.  When his chief rival, Juan Manuel Fangio, was lost for the season due to a broken neck, no one remained to challenge Ascari; he won 6 of that season’s 8 races and the Formula 1 driver’s championship.

Alberto Ascari at the 1953 French Grand Prix. Photo by Bernard Cahier/Copyright The Cahier Archive

With Fangio back in action for the 1953 season, this time with Maserati, Ascari and Fangio again engaged in a pitched battle for the Formula One crown.  While Fangio drove brilliantly, winning at Monza and finishing second 3 times, his Maserati A6 could not match the pace or reliability of Ferrari’s 500.  Ferrari won all but one race on the calendar, with Ascari winning 5 times to narrowly beat his rival and gain his second F1 driver’s championship.

Ascari in the winning Lancia D24 at the 1954 Mille Miglia.

In 1954, Ascari signed with Lancia.  Unfortunately, his new team failed to have it’s D50 Formula One car ready to race until late in the season.  Ascari’s contract prevented him from driving for another works team; so he spent much of his season on the sidelines or driving select races in a privately owned Maserati as his rival, Fangio, regained the driver’s title.  The year was not a total loss, as Ascari turned in a spectacular performance at the , winning the race at an average speed in excess of 78 miles per hour.

Ascari in his Lancia D50 at the 1955 Monaco Grand Prix.

With the delays and frustration of the prior season behind him, Ascari and Lancia were set to challenge the mighty works team of Mercedes-Benz and regain his position atop the racing world.  In the hellishly hot season opener at Buenos Aires, Ascari led the field by a wide margin until his Lancia skidded on the melting road surface and crashed.  At Monaco, Ascari qualified on the front row between the Mercedes of Fangio and Moss.  The Mercedes engaged in a running battle with the Lancias of Ascari and Castellotti.  First, Fangio’s transmission failed at the half-way mark.  On lap 80, leading by a minute and a half, Moss’s engine failed as he reached the pits.  As news of Moss’s retirement surged through the crowd, they began to signal Ascari to back off.  He ignored them.  As Ascari approached the Harbor Chicane, his Lancia got loose, overshot the corner and plunged into the Mediterranean.  Ascari suffered a broken nose and an ignoble end to his racing career.  Four days later, Alberto joined Eugenio Castellotti at Monza, where he was to test a new Ferrari 750 Monza for the upcoming Supercortemaggiore race.  After watching Castellotti put the Ferrari through its paces, Ascari asked to try his hand.  On the third lap, Ascari inexplicably lost control and crashed; his body thrown from the car on to the track where he died instantly.  Ascari was just 37 years old.  His death was regarded as a national tragedy in Italy, and his family received condolences from 3 sitting heads of state.  His rival Fangio is purported to have said, “I have lost my greatest rival.”  On the columns of the Church of San Carlo al Corso, where Ascari’s funeral was held, hung the inscription “On the Last Finish Line, meet, O lord, the soul of Alberto Ascari.”

Today would have been Alberto Ascari’s 93rd birthday.  Buon Compleanno, Alberto.

  • Armand4

    A nice article about a legendary driver. I love that color shot of the French Grand Prix– Cahier always did a brilliant job of capturing the intensity of racing.

    Speaking of the French Grand Prix, I can't wait to see what Monsieur Scroggs has on tap for Bastille Day…

  • dukeisduke

    I used to know a guy (aeronautical engineer) who'd been in the Air Force, and stationed in Germany in the early '50s. He got to attend some Grands Prix while there, and said that Ascari was his favorite driver.

  • Buickboy92

    What an amazing man, Sounds like he would have had an incredible career if he hadn't died. Happy Birthday Alberto!!!!

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